Judiciary moves forward, blending tech and humanware for responsive courts


IN 2020, the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), which originated in China,  hit  the Philippines.

Travel in and out of the country came to a halt, social gatherings were restricted, communication was limited to the use of gadgets and social media, schools were shut down,  the economy went spiraling down, many lost their jobs due to the closure of some businesses. Flaws in the healthcare  system were exposed as thousands of Filipinos died during the onslaught of the virus.

While many sectors were struggling  to cope with the hardships and challenges brought by the pandemic, the judiciary found silver linings amid the crisis.

The pandemic served as a  “reset button” for the judiciary, giving it the reason and opportunity to embrace technology into its operations to improve its efficiency, accessibility and transparency.

It ushered in  a new age—the age of technology—where virtual court proceedings, electronic filing, electronic payment, online consultations, digitalized Bar examinations and the use of artificial intelligence  have become the new normal.

Just two months after he assumed his post on April 5, 2021,  Chief Justice Alexander Gesmundo recalled the courtesy call by  the Justice Reform Initiative or JRI, an umbrella organization composed of leading business organizations in the country.

In the meeting, details of which CJ Gesmundo shared with the Businessmirror in an email interview, he  revealed his plan to innovate the Philippine court system in response to some concerns raised by some of the  guests.

Several months later, the Gesmundo-led Court approved the proposal to require the use of body cameras for law enforcers to address issues of human rights violations committed during service of search and arrest warrants.

Gesmundo  accelerated the adoption of technology  that was envisioned, put into a  blueprint, and launched  at the height of the pandemic., which is now called the Strategic Plan for Judicial Innovations (2022-2027).

The  SPJI lays down  the plans, objectives, and goals of the Court to increase efficiency,  innovation, and access in the Judiciary during the five-year period.

The plan included  the use of  videoconferencing for  virtual court proceedings which kept the wheels of justice running despite various restrictions implemented during the pandemic.

It also launched the Judiciary ePayment System (JePS), platform that allows the assessment and payment of legal fees and other collections in a more convenient and accessible manner by providing litigants, counsels and persons requesting for clearances, certifications, and other services from the courts the option to pay online through major banks and digital wallets.

“By harnessing the power of innovation and utilizing advanced technologies, we aim to reduce delays in case processing and disposition, increase efficiency of court services, and improve justice system-wide collaborations,” CJ Gesmundo said.

Bar exams system overhauled

Due the health and travel restrictions during the pandemic, the Court decided to totally change the way Bar examinations are being conducted.

From a centralized and handwritten set-up, the Gesmundo-court has adopted a “digitalized, localized and proctored modality”  for the 2020-2021 Bar examinations and vowed to adopt the same system in future Bar exams.

In the offing is the activation of the eCourt version 2 which aims to utilize  technology to enable shiwft and efficient dispensation of justice.

The eCourt version 2  is a unified, comprehensive, and intelligent case  management system for the entire Judiciary.

It is mainly comprised of six key feature—eFiling, ePayment, eRaffle, eService, Intelligent Case Monitoring and Tracking (ICMT), and eRollo.

24-hour E-Legal Consultation ?

LIKEWISE, CJ Gesmundo is not discounting the possibility of  replicating in the judiciary the so-called “telemedicine,” which uses digital  information and communication technologies to provide health care services remotely and in-real time to patients.

However, he stressed that this would entail thorough discussions and planning with other stakeholders.

“While the concept of a 24-hour ‘E-Legal Consultation’ in  collaboration/consultation with other stakeholders such as the IBP [Integrated Bar of the Philippines],  Public Attorney’s Office, and DOJ [Department of Justice], can be a valuable resource for the public by  providing accessible legal support round-the-clock, this is a  significant endeavor that demands careful planning and  implementation,” the Chief Justice said when asked if the SC is willing to formulate guidelines for such.

For now,  he said, the public may rely on the SC’s website for a   directory of legal aid providers.

“We shall continue to enhance this to widen the access of the public tolegal services being offered by the relevant justice sector agencies as  part of our collective commitment under the Justice Sector  Coordinating Council or JSCC,” he assured.

‘AI should never replace humans’

MEANWHILE, the Chief Justice said the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for legal research  and other court operations is now being thoroughly studied.

In line with this, he said, the Court is currently redeveloping the Judiciary E-Library which will include AI-enabled technologies to improve its legal research  capabilities.

“We are looking into installing a search engine which  will provide more accurate and reliable results by utilizing natural  language processing technology,” CJ Gesmundo disclosed.

When asked what other roles AI can do in the field of justice, CJ Gesmundo said they are now looking into the possibility of using AI to improve Court operations and improve access to Courts.

Currently, the SC has deployed AI-enabled Voice-to-Text  transcription technology to 20 pilot courts spanning from  lower courts to tertiary courts.

“Using machine learning, technology  will learn from conversational data and account for perceived  challenges.  If successful, the technology shall be rolled out to additional Courts,” the chief magistrate shared.

Gesmundo hopes this will improve and speed-up transcription of Court proceedings.

He added exploratory talks are now ongoing for the possibility of producing an AI generative chatbot that will aid the public in answering queries pertaining to Court processes.

While there are benefits of  giving AI a role in the judiciary, CJ Gesmundo also acknowledged that there are risks and challenges that come with it.

“The thought of replacing justices, judges, legal professionals, and  court staff with AI may diminish public trust and confidence in the  judicial system,” he said.

He explained that “delivery of justice is often synonymous with the ability of judges to arrive at a decision equipped with a deep understanding of the complexities involved and the nuances of the case due to the legal expertise that they have acquired.”

If AI will be used in making decisions, the Chief Justice pointed   out, the public  might perceive it “as mechanical and without ethical consideration.”

Such scenario, he added, “may lead to questions regarding the fairness and morality of judicial decisions.”

“Our judicial proceedings  are complex in such a way that it requires nuanced interpretation  that aligns with the rule of law. As such, AI may not be able to grasp  the complexities of instances where a contextual interpretation is  needed and in contrast, may provide a mechanical interpretation  contrary to the spirit of the law,” he warned.

Thus, CJ Gesmundo maintained, AI should never replace humans, especially when it involves judicial proceedings and processes.

“I must emphasize that AI is a tool for us, human beings, in carrying  out our judicial mandates, to maximize productivity and increase  efficiency.   The extent of AI use in judicial proceedings and processes should be determined through a deliberative system,” CJ Gesmundo said.

“AI should never replace hu-mans, especially when it involves judicial  proceedings and processes, since ethical considerations and human  judgment are imperative to ensure fairness, transparency, and  accountability within our justice system,” he said when asked as to what extent he would allow the use of AI  in court proceedings and processes.

Measures vs technological risks

IN his speech during the 2023 Social Good Summit held a few months ago, CJ Gesmundo stressed the  need to engage with technology critically and not to embrace the same heedlessly.

“Even as we use its tools—more and more of them becoming   indispensable in how we live and work—we have to be mindful. We have to make space to think of things like ethical considerations, social impacts, environmental consequences, even its impacts on our own selves and relationships with others,” he said.

He also urged lawmakers and policymakers to take a proactive role and to have the disposition of “anticipatory governance” with regard to possible consequences of technological advances.

Even SC Associate Justice Rodil Zalamede warned that  technology should be used cautiously and responsibly by those in the field of justice.

In his keynote as guest of honor at the IBP-Capiz Chapter’s Induction of New Members and Installation of Officers and Fellowship Night held on August 18, 2023 in Roxas City, Zalameda cited  a recent case in the United States where a  group of lawyers was sanctioned for having submitted a legal brief which included fictitious case citations generated by the artificial intelligence chatbot, ChatGPT.

“This is a proof that for all its limitless potentials and benefits, technology carries risk for the reckless,” Zalameda said.

So, what  proactive measures have been put in place to mitigate the impact of technology on its core values such as transparency, confidentiality, independence and efficiency?

Gesmundo assured that the Court “is harnessing the power of technology and innovation  while balancing the demand for judicial independence.”

He noted that  one of the guiding principles contemplated in the SPJI is “transparent and accountable justice”  with the aim of achieving the outcomes of efficiency, innovation, and access.

The Court is likewise implementing robust data privacy and security  measures to safeguard sensitive information.

“To ensure transparency, we continue to engage our stakeholders in our plans for the judiciary by disseminating information and materials about the SPJI and soliciting feedback,” the Chief Justice noted.

He added that oversight bodies are actively monitoring  and auditing  the Court’s technological usage to ensure accountability.

When asked if the public is now seeking the coming of  age of the judiciary in terms of technology, CJ Gesmundo replied : “Today, I am glad to say that innovation is  no longer a plan, it has already become a reality.”